Southern Baptist Sissies. To any gay kid, male or female, who grew up in Protestant America anytime before the last ten or fifteen years in most of the country, or even much more recently in the Bible Belt, this movie is a stunner. I'm referring to the 2013 filmed version of the 2000 stage play, but I imagine it applies to earlier versions as well.
There’s good religion, not so good religion, really toxic religion, and then there’s the Southern Baptist fundamentalist type of religion. Pure poison, if you’re gay.
To people whose lives are fused with religion, who think about it, talk about it all day every day, who go around praising Jesus and thanking him for every meal and every business success, religion is not simply a guiding light. It can become a pathology.
What playwright and filmmaker Del Shores has done in Southern Baptist Sissies is remarkable. He has captured the power of the church to inculcate self-loathing. To take young psyches and twist them and turn them with the kind of mind-control it takes to make a suicide bomber. The Taliban turn the kids outward toward political enemies. The Southern Baptists turn them inward on themselves. Suicide among gay teens remains epidemic and the killing agent, the impulse to hang yourself, jump from a bridge or in front of a train, is toxic religion.
The Southern Baptists are not the only ones to teach self-hatred. Clericalist Catholics do a fine job of it. So do the Mormons, the Muslims and the arch-conservative branches of other religious faiths. The damage is limited, fortunately, because most kids exposed to this kind of indoctrination grow up in pluralistic societies. They see alternatives, and with luck, find mentors and friends who help them discover a way to get outside the mindset of their church-centered lives and see them from a more objective perspective. When they do, they sometimes spend their lives raging at the injustice they come to realize was visited upon them. As one psychotherapist told me once, when I proudly announced that I had shed the religion of my youth, “You’ve smashed the statue, but you’re still struggling with the mold it came in.”
That’s still true to this day. That fact came home to me when, watching Southern Baptist Sissies on Netflix the other night, a line popped off the screen at me. “This is my church,” the actor said. “This is where we were taught to hate ourselves.”
It felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. From that point on, I was willing to dismiss what others have labeled the film's limitations: its excessive emotionality, its staginess, its length. I saw in the four young boys trying to play the cards dealt to them as gay kids in a soul-killing environment a story that needed to be told. Finally, I said, somebody has managed to let these motherfuckers have it. The Southern Baptists have produced in their young people the antidote to their poison. The kids have woken up. They’re telling their stories. And if you have even the slightest sympathy for what they have gone through, you’ll agree with me they’ve done a bang-up job of it. I say "they." I should give more credit to the writer/creator, Del Shores, but I don't want to slight the splendid performances.
I’m over a decade behind in singing the praises of this piece. If you’re closer to the gay theater circuit you may have seen Southern Baptist Sissies as a play as early as 2000 when it was first produced on stage. And if you follow the gay film festivals, you might have seen the film version a couple years ago already. It has been out since November, 2013. For this stick-at-home, Southern Baptist Sissies crossed my radar only just now with its release on Netflix, for which I am grateful.
What you are watching is a filmed version of a stage performance, reworked somewhat to allow close-ups and other shots not possible with a stage version. It’s a bit jarring, at first, but you quickly get into the characters and forget the staging. Two different things happen simultaneously. You get the four distinct stories of the young boys, with all the pain and grief of their struggles to maintain balance against the onslaught of self-hate messages. This is offset by a kind of Greek chorus pair of drunks played by Leslie Jordan, whom you may remember from Will and Grace, and by Dale Dickey. The two are drinking and smoking away their declining years and ought to be too tired and worn-out to keep going except that they are simply too hilarious to fade away.
If you get the DVD, don’t miss the extras. It is hard conveying to my Japanese life-partner what it was like to be raised in a religious mindset. He just can’t get his mind around what he considers a form of madness. Even more difficult for him is my insistence that I am still moved by the music. I was a church organist in my teens and regularly played for hymn-sings in the “Church in the Wildwood” in the summertime. The music in Southern Baptist Sissies is glorious if you have a similar memory of happy hymn-singers in years gone by. That sticks with you well after religion has left the premises.
“Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” can still rattle the nervous system, no matter the conviction that your brush with death maybe ought to have cured you of such addictions. In fact, before watching the movie, I’d recommend going straight to the Special Features section and clicking on Levi Kreis singing “Pass Me Not” to get you into the right headspace before watching the film.
One last thing, which I ought perhaps to leave out as a spoiler, but I feel it’s only fair to warn those who, like me, would love to see the story end as the lead characters slough off their religious chains and shout, “I’m free!” They don’t. The come to embrace what they see as the love of God. They simply insist it cannot be found in the current mindset of the Southern Baptist Church.
Really powerful stuff, even if it’s not entirely your cup of tea.